“America’s Team” once again spent the offseason watching the playoffs despite a star-studded roster. You’d be wrong to blame Tony Romo (+10.7 overall in 2011), who, despite failing to play in January, still put up impressive stats and played through some injuries. He didn’t always have stellar pass protection, either (-1.7 pass blocking grade as a unit).
Arguably, their defense–which underperformed in Rob Ryan’s first year at the helm–was the weak spot of the team. Despite generating pressure (43 sacks, 50 QB hits, 192 pressures) and generally shutting down the run (+61.8 as a unit in run defense), opposing QBs were able to pick them apart through the air (-36.6 pass coverage). Even with this fatal flaw, the Cowboys still had a chance to earn a home playoff game in the last week of the regular season, but fell to the eventual World Champion New York Giants. How can the Dallas Cowboys live up to their high expectations? Let’s take a look at a few areas the Cowboys need to upgrade if they want to reclaim their long-lost dominance in an increasingly competitive NFC.
Primary Need: Cornerback
One of the reasons the Cowboys once again were kept out of the playoffs was that the secondary couldn’t hold up, which was especially costly in Ryan’s blitz-happy defense. If the last two seasons are any indication (-8.4 overall grade in 2010, -9.1 in 2011), Terence Newman’s days, at least as a starter, are over. On the other side, Mike Jenkins (+1.1) struggled with some injuries and didn’t find his 2009 Pro Bowl form, but did improve on his horrid 2010 campaign. Despite recently getting a nice contract, slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick (-5.6 overall) doesn’t seem like the answer and will likely remain in the slot.
With Jenkins not going anywhere, the Cowboys need to find Newman’s replacement, but probably don’t want to commit as much to this new addition as they did with Jenkins or even Scandrick. Chiefs free agent Brandon Carr (+2.7) would be ideal. The Cowboys likely wouldn’t have to break the bank and Carr is a solid starting DB, giving up only three TDs last year and ending with a +3.9 coverage grade.
Secondary Need: Left Guard
Another area of concern for the Cowboys is the offensive line, especially the left guard spot. Rookie Bill Nagy didn’t give up a sack in the four games he played, but was still subpar in pass blocking (-1.5) and worse at run blocking (-9.8). Derrick Dockery did not impress in limited duty (-3.8 starting in two games) either. Montrae Holland, starting in 10 games, wasn’t bad (+5.9), but his level of commitment is suspect (he showed up at camp out of shape) and he also ended the season on IR (biceps injury in Week 16).
With Romo in his prime, the Cowboys need to ensure his protection and can’t afford to lowball this position, especially since their other guard, Kyle Kosier, graded out -6.0 overall. They will have to spend to do it, but they’d be best served by going after the Saints’ Carl Nicks, who has graded in the Top 4 of guards in each of the past three seasons. If they can’t get Nicks, they should try and get Ben Grubbs (+7.3 overall in 2011) from Baltimore.
Tertiary Need: Center
After cutting ties with long-time center Andre Gurode last offseason, the Cowboys started second-year Phil Costa in 2011. Costa was not only a liability in pass protection (-5.7) and run blocking (-3.1), but he also struggled at times with the bare basics like snapping the football. In the end, Costa graded out overall as our sixth-worst center for 2011. Simpy put, Dallas can do better here.
As noted above, Romo’s window is dwindling, if not closing, so Jason Garrett and company would be wise to ensure he can complete a full season, which has been a problem in the past. Houston’s Chris Myers, our highest overall graded center last season, would be ideal, but even if they aren’t willing to pass that much, there are still better options available than Costa. Oakland’s Samson Satele (+3.0 overall in 2011) might be worth an investment at his age (27), or Green Bay’s Scott Wells (+17.9), though his age (31) could warrant some concern. San Diego’s Nick Hardwick (+6.8), one of the few centers who didn’t give up a sack all season, could also be a helpful addition, though they’d have to accept his smaller size (295 pounds compared to Costa’s 307 pounds).